The comprador elements of Brazilian society have succeeded, through their control of the media, in tainting the reputation of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers Party) of Lula (former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) and Dilma (former president Dilma Rousseff), besmirching it with unfounded charges of corruption, and now even successfully ‘weaponising’ the country’s judiciary in order to be able to prevent Lula from standing for president in this year’s presidential election.
Dilma, who had been democratically elected as president in 2014, was, as a result of impeachment proceedings, forced to stand down, with her place taken by the unelected Michel Temer, whom everybody knew was actually and provably mired in corruption.
With presidential elections due in October this year, former president Lula’s popularity was such that, despite his having been outrageously unjustly convicted of corruption and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment, he was expected to win.
As a result of which, the media went into overdrive to ensure he was imprisoned pending the outcome of his final appeal, which is not due to be heard until after the election, so that he would be prevented from campaigning – though under Brazilian law he is innocent until his last possible appeal has been lost.
The real issue is economic policy
The reason that Lula remains popular despite allegations of corruption is that it is generally understood that the issue at stake here is not corruption – much less unproven corruption – but economic policy.
The masses have not forgotten that during the years of Lula’s presidency a concerted effort was made to direct some of the wealth of society towards the poor. It was admittedly a time when the Brazilian economy was doing well, but never in the past had that been a basis for the government seeking to uplift the situation of the masses.
As it is, “During its 13 years in office, the PT changed Brazil in many ways; four are principally worth mentioning, as they would come to play key roles in the elite conspiracy to impeach Dilma Rousseff and destroy her party.
“First, the PT democratised the state. It implemented the social and civic rights included in the 1988 ‘Citizen’s Constitution’, and advanced Brazil’s emerging welfare state across several fields of social provision.
“Second, the PT changed the social composition of the state through the appointment of thousands of leaders of mass organisations to positions of power. For the first time in Brazilian history, millions of poor citizens could recognise themselves in the bureaucracy and relate to close friends and comrades who had become ‘important’ in Brasília.
“Third, PT policies contributed to a significant improvement in the distribution of income, through the creation of millions of unskilled jobs, a rising minimum wage, and higher transfers and benefits.
“Fourth, although the government never abandoned the neoliberal macroeconomic policy framework imposed in the 1990s, it gradually introduced, in parallel, neo-developmental (that is, expansionary Keynesian) policies that helped to secure faster growth, higher profits and wages, and distributional gains. (Brazil’s political rupture and the left’s opportunity by Alfredo Saad Filho, The Bullet, 24 May 2017)
Specifically: “Even conservative statisticians concede that under Lula’s presidency over 40 million Brazilians were lifted out of poverty. Under Lula’s stewardship Brazil created millions of jobs and unemployment fell from 12 percent to below 6 percent. Poverty fell by 27 percent due to pro-working-class reforms, including a raise in the minimum wage.” (Brazil: Lula’s imprisonment – an attack on the working class globally by Vashna Jagarnath, Daily Maverick [South Africa], 8 April 2018)
It is also worth noting that the PT policies that Lula and Dilma implemented endeavoured to secure the interests not only of the working class, but also of the country’s extensive peasantry, who since 1984 have been organised in the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra), the landless peasants’ organisation that has fought tooth and nail against takeover of the land by multinational agribusiness.
The MST thrived under the PT governments, which strongly supported its aims: “In opposition to Brazil’s predominant model of agribusiness, based on the export-oriented mechanized production of commodities like soy, sugarcane, and eucalyptus, MST communities have provided the rural poor with a sustainable alternative to the urban exodus—providing employment, contributing to food security, and conserving cultural and biological diversity.
“At the same time, the MST has become famous for its actions related to education, health, culture, agroecology and cooperative production. With the support of a number of government administrations, its holistic approach to sustainable rural development has helped to extend tangible benefits of belonging to traditionally neglected communities and territories in the Brazilian countryside.” (Land (in)justice in Brazil by Mel Gurr, North American Congress on Latin America, 15 August 2017)
Since the PT has been ousted from government, however, a situation that had already deteriorated, thanks to the fallout from the world economic crisis that broke out in 2008, has gone from bad to worse:
“However, the situation confronting smallholder farmers affiliated with the MST has faced numerous challenges in recent years … available credit for small-scale landholders affiliated with the MST has declined, and the Brazilian congress has passed revisions to land regularisation, which … move towards dismantling the universal right to land and housing …
“These developments must be contextualised within Brazil’s broader political and economic conjuncture, marked by a severe political crisis and economic recession. Since the dubious impeachment of Dilma Rouseff of the Workers’ Party (PT) her replacement, Michel Temer has proposed a number of austerity measures … which cap social spending programmes for the next twenty years.
“Such regressive measures threaten the significant progress made by previous administrations in terms of tackling hunger and extreme poverty, and represent a rupture with prior governance strategies based on participatory democracy.” (Mel Gurr, ibid)
Response to crisis
It is more than obvious that the response to the world economic crisis endorsed by the PT, and that endorsed by Temer and the sections of the bourgeoisie that support him, are diametrically opposed. Within capitalism there is, of course, no way of avoiding the disastrous effects of economic crisis, but PT policies seek to protect the poor as much as possible, while the opposition pursues the counterproductive line of trying to save the rich at the expense of the poor.
When there is a world recession, even the most progressive capitalist government, the most committed to the interests of the masses, cannot completely stave off the negative effects, which are beyond the control of even the most learned bourgeois economists on the planet.
Brazil’s halcyon years under Lula’s presidency were much assisted by the fact that China had come on the scene as a trading partner, breaking the age-old trading monopolies in Latin America held by imperialist cartels, which offered their exports only at high prices and paid very poorly for their imports, lending money to cash-strapped governments at astronomic rates of interest and subject to back-breaking conditions.
When China entered the picture, however, after it joined the World Trade Organisation, things began to look up.
“Between 1999 and 2003, a pattern of trade was built up which generated a substantial trade surplus for Brazil. This surplus resulted from market gains obtained by Brazilian commodities on the Chinese market, but also from rising commodity prices.”
By 2009 China had overtaken the US to become Brazil’s largest trading partner. Malcolm Moore reported in the Daily Telegraph of 9 May 2009: “China has become Brazil’s most-important trading partner, disrupting a relationship between the United States and the Latin country that stretches back to the 1930s
“Welber Barral, the Brazilian trade minister, said total trade between Brazil and China had amounted to $3.2bn (£2.14bn) in April, representing a near twelve-fold increase since 2001.
The sum was greater than the $2.8bn of imports and exports to the US … “The US has been Brazil’s principal trading partner for nearly 80 years, but a sudden surge in Chinese demand for Brazilian iron ore in the first quarter of this year dislodged the Americans.
“The news is the latest sign of China’s increasing challenge to US hegemony in Latin America. China has been steadily increasing its sphere of influence and has become particularly close to the four ‘Red’ South American countries: Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru …” (China overtakes the US as Brazil’s largest trading partner)
The most important thing to note in all this is that the imperialist monopolies are no longer able to dictate prices and terms, even with regard to the trading relations they still maintain. But still they lose traction because of China’s competitive advantage of being more efficient – ie, having rather lower costs of production than its western imperialist competitors.
Furthermore, in 2006 the US was the largest trading partner for 127 countries, versus just 70 for China. In 2012 it was 124 for China, 76 for the US – a trend that is continuing. This is hardly a situation acceptable to US imperialism, which is undoubtedly desperate to reverse the trend.
For this reason US imperialism has been very active in seeking to oust pro-China governments from office and has been making prodigious efforts to interfere in elections to secure the appointment of such flunkeys as Mauricio Macri in Argentina, Horacio Cartes in Paraguay (only elected after yet another blatantly baseless impeachment in 2012 of elected president Fernando Lugo) and Juan Orlando Hernández in Honduras, whose election was only achieved by brazen poll rigging.
Brazil has been the latest domino to fall, and US imperialism is determined that it will not get back on its feet.
The situation of which imperialism is taking advantage is, curiously enough, the world economic crisis. The strategy is to persuade the populace that the hardships resulting from the crisis have been caused not by the crisis but by the incompetence and/or venality of political leaders, most particularly political leaders who do not accept orders from US imperialism.
In Brazil the crisis caused considerable hardship, which US imperialism, hand in hand with Brazil’s most reactionary elements – ie, those who sought to restore a comprador relationship with US imperialism in their own narrow financial interests – sought to exploit.
“Not long after Rousseff took office, commodity prices dropped worldwide, and growth rates dipped sharply. Government revenues fell, though budgetary obligations and expenditures remained largely unchanged.
“Deficits swelled, inflation increasingly threatened, unemployment edged up and the public began to lose confidence in the Rousseff government.” (Here’s what really went wrong with Brazil’s economy by Peter Hakim, Reuters, 26 May 2016)
Thus was the ground laid for the reactionaries to stage Rousseff’s impeachment.
Once he took control of the government, Michel Temer did not hesitate to implement the austerity policies that the bourgeoisie thought the situation demanded.
“Temer’s government has taken a U-turn on many energy policies adopted by his predecessors: Petrobras, the state-run oil company at the center of the Car Wash scandal, is no longer required to have a substantial stake in projects. New bidding rules have reduced the obligation of local content requirements …
“Again it seeks to reduce the role of the state by privatising Eletrobras and other energy providers …
“The government’s announcement last week that it will allow mining in parts of the Amazon – stripping away protection from a national reserve – caused an outcry from environmental groups worldwide, as not much in terms of public consultation was done ahead of the move (Michel Temer’s reform agenda in Brazil: a rundown by Daniel Gallas Americas Quarterly, 7 September 2017)
“Immediately after Rousseff’s impeachment, Temer pushed for a sharp fiscal adjustment, reversed Brazil’s independent foreign policy, ‘reformed’ the state-owned conglomerate Petrobras by offering significant concessions to the oil majors, removed local-content rules for government procurement, and reined in the Brazilian development bank’s (BNDES) aspirations.
“The government also denationalised Brazil’s vast oil reserves in the South Atlantic, as well as the energy, agriculture, and infrastructure sectors …” (Brazil’s crisis of hegemony by Alfredo Saad-Filho and Armando Boito, Jacobin, 24 May 2017)
But naturally the neoliberal alternative has been unable to restore Brazil’s economic health, any more than the Keynesian resort of the government spending more than its income, because the neoliberal retrenchment is even more devastating in its negative effects.
“The economy is now a picture of desolation. The slowdown culminated in sharp contractions. In 2015 and 2016, reducing income per capita to the level of the early 2000s. The gains achieved under the PT administrations evaporated.
“Open unemployment has shot up. The fiscal deficit and public debt are mounting, and several domestic conglomerates — especially the so-called national champions, which the PT sponsored in its alliance with the internal bourgeoisie — are experiencing deep crisis.” (Alfredo Saad Filho and Armando Boito, ibid)
This in turn explains the enduring popularity of Lula and the deep desire of very many of the Brazilian people to see him back in office. If they ever thought that getting rid of Dilma would resolve their problems, this has now been thoroughly disproved.
No viable alternative to Lula
It is purely in the interests of US imperialism and Brazil’s comprador bourgeoisie that the hue and cry against Lula is being maintained. Embarrassment may result in that the alternatives to Lula as president appear to be either hopelessly mired in corruption scandals themselves, or not necessarily keen to re-establish a US trade monopoly, or both.
Eduardo Cunha, the powerhouse behind the impeachment of Dilma, was himself not long afterwards convicted of large-scale corruption in Brazil and Switzerland and found himself in prison.
“Cunha – a right-wing evangelical christian – [was found by a Brazilian court] guilty of corruption, money laundering and currency law evasion in connection with a $1.6m bribe he received from a deal by the state-run oil firm Petrobras to buy exploration rights in Benin.
“The judgment also noted a pending case in Switzerland related to $2.3m stashed in a secret bank account in the European country.” (Brazilian politician who orchestrated ousting of Rousseff sentenced to prison by Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, 30 March 2017)
Moreover, “On 18 May, the owners of JBS, the world’s largest meat processing conglomerate, agreed a plea bargain. They revealed JBS funding to 28 parties and almost 2,000 politicians, and produced evidence of large cash payments to the leader of the right wing PSDB (Brazilian Social Democracy Party) and runner-up in the 2014 presidential elections, Aécio Neves, against whom multiple accusations had already emerged but were never investigated seriously.
“Finally, JBS produced the recording of a conversation between one of its owners and President Temer, suggesting that JBS would pay Eduardo Cunha for his continuing silence while in jail, in order to avoid incriminating his old friend Temer.”
Appeal to the UN human rights commission
In the meantime, Lula’s case is being taken to the UN human rights commission by the British human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, QC, who considers the way the case has been handled by the Brazilian authorities egregiously violates Lula’s fundamental human rights.
Mr Robertson wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine last year: “Lula has denied all the accusations against him. He believes that the investigation is politically motivated, and many of his compatriots agree: according to a poll conducted by Instituto Paraná Pesquisas, a market research firm, 42.7 percent of Brazilians agree that Lula is being persecuted by the media and the judiciary in an effort to remove him from the 2018 presidential race.
“So far, prosecutors have found no hard evidence linking him to the alleged crimes, yet they have used aggressive tactics, such as leaking recordings of wiretapped phone calls he made to his family, to publicly embarrass him.
“In this and other ways, Lula’s case has raised crucial questions about Brazil’s judicial system: specifically, whether it can give Lula a fair trial and protect the due process rights of those accused of corruption …
“The investigation came to include Lula a year ago, after prosecutors claimed that since leaving the presidency, he had received gifts from one of the cartel companies implicated in Operation Car Wash. Since then, Moro has ordered Lula’s property seized, his bank accounts scrutinised, and his phone calls with his family and lawyers wiretapped.
“Yet investigators have discovered no hidden assets or overseas accounts. Since leaving office, Lula has lived in the same small, modestly furnished apartment outside São Paulo that he inhabited before becoming president.
“During his two terms in office, neither he nor his wife received any benefits other than his presidential salary and the gifts routinely bestowed on a head of state. There is no evidence that Lula took any actions while president that were motivated by the receipt or the promise of money or gifts.” (The case for Lula, 19 April 2017)
The New Internationalist also carried a good article earlier this year detailing the total absence of any genuinely sustainable case against Lula, let alone of any crime that merits imprisonment for 12 years.
“The legal system operating in Brazil today has been likened to the catholic Inquisition, with Moro as the grand inquisitor.
“‘The grand inquisitor organises, supervises the searches and procedures and arrests, forms his or her own opinions and then judges,’ says Robertson. ‘It’s bizarre. It’s as though you were arrested by a police officer one day, who takes off a helmet and puts on a wig the next, and passes judgement.’ …
“The charges against Lula centre on a seaside apartment in Rio de Janeiro owned by his wife, Marisa, who died last year. Lula is accused of having accepted a bribe from a contractor who did $100,000 worth of work on the flat.
“Robertson offers Lula’s defence to these charges: ‘Marisa, years ago, had a part in a building society which entitled her to a flat overlooking a rather second-rate beach. The building society went bust and was taken over by one of the contractors suspected of ripping off the country through deals with Petrobras, and this contractor offered Marisa a more spacious apartment and did $100,000 dollars worth of changes to it.
“‘Lula visited the apartment once, didn’t like it, and told his wife he never wanted to live there. This was all after he had left presidential office; he had no power. Yet he is accused now of accepting a bribe.
“‘It is nonsense. There is no evidence in the case of any kind of quid pro quo, no evidence that he did anything for the contractor. There was no evidence of any corrupt arrangement, no evidence of crime.’
“The second case relates to five days spent with his family at the estate of some wealthy friends. Again, this was after he had left office …
“The campaign against Lula is intense. According to Lula’s Brazilian lawyer: ‘Constant leaks of baseless information keep on appearing in the press intended to demonise Lula or his group. None of this information can be proven but it is leaked and appears in the press over and over again until the person is found guilty by the population.’” (Brazil’s rich weaponise law to stop Lula campaign, 4 January 2018)
One can only hope that the UN human rights commission is capable of putting itself above politics in order to carry out its mission honourably in this case.
In the meantime the PT has vowed to put Lula forward as its presidential candidate even though he is in prison. If the comprador bourgeoisie and its US backers are unable to come up with yet another wheeze to prevent this, it is not at all unlikely that Lula will be elected, since even after his imprisonment opinion polls show that were he to run he would attract considerably more votes than anybody else.